a11 – Dangerous, alluring, meaningful – students on People’s Park and their role in its destruction

By Sam

The University of California Berkeley is very concerned about the housing problem the city faces, but not the one that immediately comes to mind. Apparently the school is about six thousand beds short and student homelessness has been on the rise (though so are student fees and chancellor saleries, but apparently that’s neither here nor there to them). The school has nine sites in mind as future student housing centers. Perhaps inspired by how many folks it currently houses, one of those sites is People’s Park, an area that the school technically owns, but has no control over. Originally a proposed spot for student housing in the fifties, the university lost funding and intrest and ceased construction. In 1969 there was a community effort to turn the area into a park, but the university abruptly demanded the space back. Clashes between people and police lead to rioting, police shootings that left one man dead, and a National Guard occupation of Berkeley, but in the end the people kept their park.

So my original idea for this article was to simply report on the university’s plan, but a thought occurred one day while lazing around on Telegraph, watching the students roll by: do any of these people care? I mean, it’s for them — people that will only be in Berkeley at most four years — that Cal is attempting to get rid of a spot loved by so many. How do they feel about that? As far as I can remember, I don’t ever recall seeing a student pass through the park. Why did they avoid it so much? With all of that in mind, I got a tape recorder decided to hit the streets for answers.

My initial approach — chasing kids down Telegraph with a microphone — yielded no results. It was pretty depressing how those kids eyed, or refused to eye, me. They seemed disturbed by the fact that someone they’d never met was smiling and saying “Hi” to them. I wondered if they assumed I was a panhandler, and then wondered if that, coupled with their reaction, had answered my question better than any interview could.

Finally a freshman agreed to talk to me. His thoughts on the park? “Not so great.” In regards to it’s possible destruction, he said that he’d indeed heard about it but had yet to form an opinion. “It would be nice for the students to have more housing options,” he added. Next was another freshman who actually lives right next to the park! He described it as a home for the homeless and “a place where a culture of hippiness is fostered.” Fair. Unfortunately, he was actually in favor of the proposed project, adding “it’s not like they won’t rehabilitate the people that have been displaced”. Quite baffled, I asked him if he really thought that the university was going to help out the homeless if they got rid of the park. “Uh, I’m not so familiar with the system yet; it’s only been one month here.” One month where, on this planet?!? Sheesh.

Next up was a Cal graduate named Edward, who said that he’d heard that “sometimes girls are afraid to go past it alone at night, but it hasn’t caused me problems so I’m cool with it.” He thinks that, while some renovations wouldn’t be too bad, overall he “[doesn’t] think they should build a complete housing unit [there]”, though he cynically added that “the guys with suits do whatever they want.” Good lord, conceding to authority? What are they teaching those kids there?!? Fortunately his friend Ivan, also a former Cal student, was a little more optimistic. “[The park] has a special vibe that you can’t find in other places,” says Ivan. “When my friends come over to Berkeley that go ‘Oh! That’s People’s Park!’ I think if there were just ordinary buildings there it would take out the uniqueness of the place. Even though it’s kind of sketchy and dangerous, I still find the allure of the place pretty meaningful.”

Dominique, a junior at UC Berkeley, said that “a lot of people say it’s a hole in the wall and they don’t wanna go there,” though personally he finds the patrons of the park “harmless for the most part”. When I asked him about the proposed project, he said “I know there’s a shortage of housing, and I know that the park isn’t liked very much, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.” As for it’s historical significance, Dominique gave me one of the best understatements I’ve heard in a long while with “I know some people say it has some significance along with the Free Speech Movement and things like that.” These fucking kids, man. “I feel like eventually it’ll be taken down because of the need for housing.” Housing for the students or the homeless? After all, both are in need. Dominique shrugged and said “In this particular area [they] would prioritize students.” 

At this point, the sun started to go down and I knew I’d have to wrap up soon. I was still a bit dismayed. I’d succeeded in getting people to talk to me, but their answers gave me little to no hope. The fact was almost none of them cared about the park’s past, present or future. 

The last person I talked to was actually someone who turned me down before doubling back and saying “No wait that sounds cool.” Was he familiar with Slingshot? No. Did he attend UC? No, but he had grown up in Berkeley. Was he familiar with People’s Park? At this his eyes lit up, and I started to come out of my depressed haze. “[The park’s] history is so rich and just so fucking cool,” he excitedly exclaimed. Without my even bringing it up he added “It breaks my heart that they might turn it into student housing. That mural tells the whole story.” Awesome! So, maybe the students don’t care too much (or at all), but I think it’s safe to say that the defenders of the park have strength in numbers. Right? Right.